My colleague Fernando Gonzalez has graciously contributed this exclusive eulogy for Mercedes Sosa who passed away last week. We both agreed that the video of her performance of "Todo Cambia" captures her passion, charisma and the love she elicited from her fans. Thank you, Fernando.
By Fernando Gonzalez
For an artist, becoming a political symbol is a double edged sword.
Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa, who died of in kidney failure in Buenos Aires on October 4, at age 74, was for many Mother Courage, The Voice of the Americas, The Mother of the Americas, The Voice of the Voiceless, and more.
Sometimes obscured by the mythmaking was the fact that she was an extraordinary artist.
A short, stocky woman, with Indian facial features and jet black hair (she was nicknamed La Negra, the black one), Sosa possessed an extraordinary alto voice, rich and powerful but also remarkably expressive. She could go from a whispered love song to a rousing flag-waver with stunning ease. Sosa was not a songwriter. But, quoting an old line, when Sosa sang a song, it stayed sung. She made her own songs such as “Gracias a La Vida,” “Alfonsina y el Mar,” and “Maria, Maria,” even when the songwriters were themselves major figures such as Violeta Parra and Milton Nascimento.
She performed usually sitting center stage – although before health problems pretty much confined her to a chair on stage, she would also get up and dance, a memory perhaps from when Sosa was a teenager in Tucumán, a province in Argentina’s northwest, and she was a teacher of folk dances.
She started as a traditional folk singer but soon she was part of a group of poets and musicians who were, sometimes literally, rewriting folk music with what became known as Movimiento del Nuevo Cancionero, the New Song Movement, updating the standard folk lyrics to address the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. It set the tone for her entire career.
“We were looking for a different poetic language, and musically we looked at jazz,” she once explained. “We spoke from truth and poverty, but didn´t forget about the landscape, because we didn’t want to grow apart from the people. They called us communists because any revolutionary act provokes fear and culture is the most important revolution. Governments don’t last. Culture is the greatest power.”
Notably, and especially after her return to Argentina in 1982 after a three year self-imposed exile, Sosa not only maintained a progressive attitude regarding the lyrics but applied it to her music, collaborating, for example, with rockers such as Charly Garcia and Fito Páez, and opening her repertoire to young, sometimes unknown, songwriters.
In recent years, in 1997 and again in 2003, she struggled with various health problems. In ‘97 the situation was so dire that, she acknowledged years later, she wrote her testament. Her problems in 2003, including severe depression, kept her off the stages for two years.
Sosa died after 13 days at the hospital. Her illness canceled plans to present a new two-disc set of duets featuring an all star cast of collaborators including García, Páez, Shakira, Julieta Venegas, and Joaquín Sabina. (It was released in the U.S. as one disc including selections from the two volumes.) It was, appropriately, called “Cantora,” singer.
For all the names she was called, this was the only title Sosa claimed for herself.
"Sometimes, one is made to be a big mouth or some sort of Robin Hood and it's not like that," she once told me, in the 90s. "I am a woman who sings, who tries to sing as well as possible with the best songs available. I was bestowed this role as big protester and it's not like that at all. I'm just a thinking artist."